ORLANDO, Florida — The moment the alligator clamped down on Rachael Lilienthal’s right arm she softly touched its head with her left, as if to convince herself of what was happening.
“I think it was then that I paused and I prayed,” she remembered in her first interview since the attack seven weeks ago on the Wekiva River. “It was a simple prayer. It was bless us, protect us, keep us well.”
The alligator didn’t let go.
So this time Lilienthal, 37, pounded the reptile’s head.
“This made him angry, so he turned me under the water,” she said.
Each time the gator dragged her under — she’s not sure how many — she didn’t know how long it would be until she surfaced.
“At one point I could feel my arm break,” she said. “And I was so upset that I had to deal with a broken arm.”
She looks back now, almost bemused at how in the moment she worried about getting a cast.
The gator let her back up and she looked around and called to the nearest people, a group of women in a canoe.
They were struggling to maneuver their canoe, but had whistles and started blowing them.
“They played a very important part,” she said. “They let everybody know there was a problem.”
Then Krista Karlsen and her boyfriend Casey Spencer paddled their kayak over.
Lilienthal calls them “heroic” and marvels at how they didn’t hesitate or consider their own safety.
Casey began to hit the alligator with his paddle.
The gator then rolled Lilienthal so violently her bathing suit was torn off.
“One last time, Casey got the alligator I think right on the head with the paddle really hard,” she said. “And, I guess luckily because it could have been so much worse, the alligator took off with my arm.”
This is one of the incredible things about Rachael Lilienthal.
Even when reflecting on the most terrifying of moments, she finds the silver lining: It just took her arm.
She is also incredibly grateful.
For the kayakers.
“They saved the day,” she said.
For the Eagle Scout nearby in a canoe who helped get her to the dock at Wekiva Island.
For the powerful man who reached down and pulled her onto land.
“He somehow lifted me out of the water by one arm,” she said. “I do not know who that man was. I would love to thank him if anybody knows who that is.”
For the person who ran for a towel and covered her. Even in her panic she remembers being terrified that she was naked.
And for the paramedics.
“I was from alligator’s mouth to the operating room in less than one hour,” she said.
She remembers being in the ambulance, and the panic that washed over her.
“Once I was in the hands of the professionals I gave up and I cried for my mommy,” she remembered, looking over at her mother, Cindy Kruger.
They both choked back the emotion of remembering that day.
It’s been seven weeks since Lilienthal went to Wekiva Island with a friend. They canoed. She drank a smoothie (and no alcohol, as some have speculated). He ate a sandwich.
They decided to get in the water to cool off.
Her friend got back out, but Rachael, who has a passion for swimming, decided to stay in a bit longer.
She did a few butterfly strokes and chatted with some people in a canoe — the same women who would later blow the whistle to help save her.
The river was crowded. She says she didn’t go into any areas where swimming is prohibited. She wasn’t in the weeds.
She was heading back to meet up with her friend when she felt something move over her back. She thought it might have been a canoeist who didn’t see her. It was the alligator.
“I know that alligators live in those waters. That’s their home, I’m aware of that,” she said. “I also had a false sense of security that they don’t attack people.”
One witness told her after the fact that she saw the gator leave the bank on the other side of the river and swim toward Lilienthal.
In a way, she says, it might have been best the alligator got her, a strong swimmer and former lifeguard.
“If that gator had gotten someone else, would they have been as comfortable in the water?” she asked. “I think that most people would not have had such a favorable outcome.”
Those silver linings, again.
The resilience that kept her alive that day still shows.
Lilienthal, a Florida State grad, teaches Spanish at Rollins College and plans to be back in the classroom by January.
But the simplest things are hard now. Like getting dressed, or putting her hair in a ponytail.
Once right-handed, she’s learning to write and type with her left.
She is thankful for health insurance, but it’s still unclear if it will cover the kind of prosthetic arm Lilienthal hopes to have one day.
Her friends set up a fundraising account — GoFundMe.com/wekivarachael-com — to help cover her many expenses.
Her occupational therapist helped her find a special cutting board so she can cut fruit and vegetables with one hand for salads.
“This morning I single-handedly made my awesome mother a great cup of coffee with cashew mylk,” she wrote on Facebook last month.
“That was the day she got back from the hospital,” her mother, Kruger, remembered. “She’s done a lot in that amount of time.”
Kruger, who lives in suburban Philadelphia, has stayed with Lilienthal since the accident.
She showed her videos of paralympic swimmers.
And, one day, Lilienthal knows she’ll swim again.
Until then she has decided to tackle the small things.
And, as she puts it, find the peace that comes with being grateful.
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